My eyes hurt. This is due to several circumstances: firstly, Frozen Synapse 2 has a beautiful neon crispness that I can still see when I shut my eyes. Secondly, I appear to activate the part of my brain that makes excellent tactical decisions via squinting. And finally, my eyes are sore because I've stayed up far too late playing brilliant matches of tactical shooter chess against people across the globe.
To be frank, I didn’t really get on with the original Frozen Synapse. The simple reason is that, even though I love them, I’m terrible at strategy games. I love learning the intricacies and systems that developers put in place, but I’m just not very good at putting them into practice. Frozen Synapse 2 is bursting with features which will create interesting and creative scenarios for other players.
Not me, or not at first anyway. I play too aggressively, sending my troops into rooms where enemies are already behind cover in the hope that RNGesus blesses my bullets. Naturally this never works out, and my squad lies dead on the ground as the game gently asks if I’d like to try again.
This sequel takes place following the original game and sees you head up security for the entire city. The mayor has put you in charge because of the character’s past credentials, knowing only you can stamp out the Sonata rebel forces spreading through the districts.
Several tries into the third skirmish, I began to feel sorry for the mayor, not to mention the citizens. Local leaders of districts kept calling through, asking if I’d send my squad to violent clashes over electronic relics which the Sonata group deemed to be powerful. I’d send in my crack squad, they would die, and I’d retry.
My city screen became overwhelming, flashing yellow and red as calls came in. My small and worn-out squad ferried themselves back and forth, occasionally dropping off money bonds and relics at HQ when I saw success. The money bought mercenaries from the open market and I added them to my squad in the hope that more firepower would help. Eventually I went back to the tutorial, which is incredibly thorough.
A very chatty AI guides me through the basics again and, squinting at the screen, I decide to try some new things. I began experimenting with sub-menus: if you click a troop, and then double click where you’d like them to move to, a guideline appears on the floor.
This can be manipulated to an enormous degree – adding in waypoints for soldiers to pivot and aim into different areas, or simply wait for a set amount of time before moving onward. You can tell them to duck behind cover on the way, or ignore any targets in favour of reaching a waypoint faster.
The possibilities for each scenario feel endless, and the game helps by playing through your movement choices before you commit to action. Clicking the play button constantly cycles through the allotted choices, and making changes on-the-fly filters through your overall strategy nicely. Adjusting the angle of approach, or the ending position of a unit, makes a world of difference.
Soon I was back in the campaign and clearing areas of combatants like a crack SAS squad, capturing checkpoints, blowing away bad guys, saving hostages, and emerging with every squad member intact. More units became available, bringing deeper tactical elements with them. One of the helpful hints while loading suggested using a riot shield bearer to bounce grenades into rooms, and my brain began to whirl with possibilities.
Hey, maybe the mayor was right all along.
Between incursions I’d check back on my HQ, plotting out patrol paths for the squad I leave behind. The level of detail in the city simulation extends to the Sonata forces attempting to infiltrate your base, stealing precious resources and relics.
At times the overwhelming feeling crept back in. There’s so much to do that I found myself simply wanting to focus on the core gameplay of tactical planning. Some fans will love the lore and the management side here, and they're a nice break from the intense tactical scenarios, but I wanted more and more action.
At this point I jumped into the multiplayer. Several options are open, from the developers and community setting up ‘one move’ challenges, to longer more in-depth matches which play like a long-distance chess match.
The single move games are an interesting idea: another player sets up an area, deploys enemy troops, and you have a turn to score as highly as possible using randomly placed units of your own. This is a perfect way to hone your general tactical approach, because the map and the possibilities open to you are never the same.
In one match I had to take out two rocket troops and a grenadier, while in the next it was just two handgun units but surrounded by lots of cover. These short bursts of action rely on quick thinking and I found myself losing more than winning.
Switching over to the longer matches, I found what I enjoyed most in Frozen Synapse 2 – the chance to focus on tactics over a longer period of time. Loading into a random map with a jumble of units, you plot out initial moves, always thinking about what your opponent may be up to. Clicking ‘Prime’ to submit your move sends the data across the world to whomever you’ve been randomly paired with, and you sit back and await their turn.
In the menus Frozen Synapse 2 asks if you’d like to receive emails or Steam notifications when your opponent has made their move. Whenever I’d see these I’d quickly log back in or come out of the single player to examine them.
Usually I’d end up on the back foot, having to rethink the situation and after a few games one of my opponents opened the chat box. They politely informed me of what I was doing wrong – that I was being too aggressive (I know) and storming in guns blazing, rather than slowly taking my time. This blessed individual gave me some other pointers and, as I went on to lose many matches to them, even more of the game opened up in front of me.
It was at this point that I learned you could mock up how the enemy might move. Clicking on the nasty red dudes allows for similar control compared to your own units, and allows you to run them through certain situations.
Initially the learning curve for Frozen Synapse 2 is steep but, helped by that excellent tutorial, it soon plateaus out. I began to notice the more subtle details – an enemy moving from point A to point B will be slower to react to gunfire, for example. Certain weapons bring in familiar factors, such as the Sniper moving a lot slower or the SMG being lovely at mid-range but useless over distance, but it's in the mix of all these ideas that the game hits a grand tactical peak. With only six slots for units in a squad, the balance becomes imperative.
As much as I enjoyed playing against the AI in singleplayer, it's the multiplayer here that soon proves irresistible. Playing against a human in any game just has more substance and gravitas and, particularly given the nature of the game, it's thrilling to send off those moves somewhere across the globe and know there's no way of taking them back.
The singleplayer world of AI, shapes and sterile technology eventually came to feel a little restrictive, and while some players may really enjoy the city management side I found it pulling me away from the core fun too often.
Frozen Synapse 2 flourishes away from the city screen and its slightly cluttered UI and, after I'd served my apprenticeship, almost all of the considerable enjoyment I had came from trying to outwit random people online. With so many game modes to play in both 'light' and 'dark' mode (whether enemies can be seen or not), and those gorgeous little notifications, I certainly kept coming back.
The striking visual style is accompanied by music that matches the tension which, when punctuated by staccato gunfire, creates an enveloping neon universe with huge depth. At times it feels like the game reveals something new or unexpected with every turn, causing smiles and shock aplenty. There were times in online games when someone did something so unexpected, so creative, and so devastating, that all I could do was watch and laugh.
As I write, an email has arrived saying an opponent has made their move. Frozen Synapse 2 is a wonderful multiplayer game and, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to squint at it.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.